Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Teaching While Vulnerable

It was my birthday, and I had brought cupcakes in for my 10 am Digital Media Theory class. I knew that cupcakes weren't a great breakfast food, but bringing in treats is the best part of birthdays for me, and I was balancing two trays of cupcakes and my bag when my phone buzzed. I heard from my parents that morning that my grandmother had fallen suddenly and seriously ill, but the word at 8:30 am was that there was no need for me to change any plans immediately, and I should teach. So I went to campus, and was all ready to teach when I got the message that I needed to make it to the hospital, and fast. A lot of that sad, horrible day was a blur, but I do remember distinctly the sense of paralysis I felt when I knew I had to tell my students what was happening. 

As a woman, I often feel compelled to tamp down my emotional responses, my vulnerability. I am all too aware that if I cry in my advisor's office, or say something in anger to a colleague, or share details of my personal life with my students that those actions are read differently because of my identity. I know from my work as a teaching consultant that the concern over looking vulnerable, unprofessional or less than because of our identities is not gender specific, but something that many struggle with across different groups. But, I taught in a subject area where my emotional reaction to what we were watching, reading or discussing was not neutral, and I had to learn early on that managing my teacherly identity demanded as much thought as how I manage any other professional identity. 

There are as many ways to manage your teacherly identity as there are ways to be human, and I believe strongly that one-size-fits-all advice about how to conduct yourself in the classroom is detrimental and flattens difference in an unproductive way. But I do believe in being a whole person as an instructor, just as I believe in seeing my students as whole people. I work hard to remember that my students' lives extend beyond our time together in the classroom, and that they have unseen pressures and joys that touch their work and their thinking while we are together, but I had to work much harder to accept that about myself. As an inexperienced teacher, I relied heavily on the examples of teachers I had had in my career as a student, and wanted deeply to embody their gravitas, their authority, their sense of unflappability. But I quickly came to know that despite my best efforts, my passion, my emotions, my connection to material I was teaching, and my connection to my students demanded a different model. I decided that I deserved the compassion I extended to my students - I expect and prepare for their whole lives to be brought, in professional ways, into the classroom, and I had to learn to do that myself.

This is not, to be very clear, a call to become dissolve professional boundaries with my students. My boundaries include not friending students on Facebook, or hanging out with them after or before class in social settings. I hold fast to my boundaries about when and how I would respond to emails, and am quick to involve other University resources when a student comes to me with an issue (mental health, advising on a departmental level, etc) that is outside of my purview. I try, insofar as is possible, to keep the conditions of my own life, professional and personal, out of my classroom, which for me involved not making excuses about how my own work as a doctoral student impacts my energy levels or ability to return assignments, or openly discuss any social activities I may or may not have partaken in. But, I never endeavored to hide my life. 

And sometimes, my life intervened. Sometimes, I was completely worn down and needing of a little extra participation to make it through a seminar. At other times, I openly cried at screenings because the text demanded it - you try watching Wall-E and not crying! I was open about why and how I chose certain texts to bring into the classroom, and tried to let my enthusiasm be evident. And in doing so, I developed a few strategies for managing my vulnerability while still remaining in control of my classroom. 

  • Vocalize your need for energy and participation. Surprisingly, I found my students to be receptive to bald calls for extra participation. When discussion was dragging, or participation was low, I would say things like "Okay, in order for this activity to be of benefit to all of us, I need to hear from more voices" or "I know that it is early and we may not all be equally prepared for this discussion, but I would rather you have the reading and your notes open, looking for support as we discuss than to have us sit in silence." I know that I like to be addressed as a collaborator rather than an examinee, and I tried to model that. But I have also said things to classes like "Okay, everyone - today is a harder day for me. I would really appreciate it if you could help me by making an extra effort to participate in our discussion." I never fully explained what was happening, or made excuses, but by showing that I was human, and had off days, and asking for them to work with me, I found more often than not that my students were willing to help and support me as I do them. 
  • Be clear about what you expect, and what students can expect from you, and communicate changes as early and as clearly as possible. In my department, the standard turn-around time for grades to be returned was about two weeks from when the assignment was handed in, but this was often a suggestion, and never codified anywhere. When I was instructor of record (although there are ways to create this unity and clarity when part of a teaching team!) I was very explicit about when I would return things. This allowed students to plan ahead, and stopped the flood of emails and questions after class about when grades would be up. But, sometimes you can't make the deadline. Rather than hoping no one would notice that I didn't return something, I opted to be upfront about it, explaining that there had been a delay (no detail necessary) and giving the new date when things would be returned. I thought about it much like how I give extensions: I don't necessarily need to know why a student needs extra time, but I do need that student to ask for the extension with as much time as possible, and present to me a clear plan for getting back on track. Things are late, it happens - just be clear about what's happening, and what the new plan is. 
  • Build your skills for discussing difficult topics in class. I was more than lucky to be working on a campus with a great teaching center, and I took a few seminars, and then taught more, on how to handle difficult subjects in class. Here is a great run-down for all kinds of difficult moments - the unexpected difficult moment, the planned discussion, and how to deal with issues involving instructor identity. No one, as far as I know, is born knowing how to facilitate productive discussion about difficult topics, but reading and learning more about how to do so can help you feel comfortable. 
  • Show yourself some compassion. Teaching itself is a vulnerable proposition, and when you're not at your best, it can be even more so. I took great comfort in knowing that one class session did not my entire teaching career make - and just as I encourage my students to seek out help and resources to support their whole selves, I can and should do that to. Talk to mentors. Talk through lesson plans and experiences with colleagues. Be a little more kind to yourself on days you teach. 

On my birthday, I knew that I couldn't continue class as normal. I told the students there that there was a family emergency and that class was cancelled. I instantly felt horrible, and vulnerable, that students had seen me upset, that I hadn't continued class, that I left them with pans of cupcakes to deal with. But I learned an important lesson - humans can be kind. My students washed the pans and brought them to the office. My colleagues offered to cover my classes. My students understood when we had to move through material more quickly than normal the next week. No one (as far as I know) begrudged me for being with my family, and I was touched by students that reached out via email and in person to send me cat pictures and well wishes. Life went on. And I learned that maybe as much as my students needed to learn the content of my lectures, maybe they also needed examples of how to ask for and give others compassion when life knocks the breath out of us.